Friday, 13 July 2018

Moto Z in 2018

Phone reviewers don't often get to experience the real world use pattern that most folk do, their typical exposure to devices being 2 weeks rather than 2 years! So this one's quite rare for me. I bought the Moto Z on release in September 2016, nearly 2 years ago, and I thought that given the above, and the fact that Android Oreo just dropped in, it would be a good point to look back at that period and see how it performs now, compared to more modern phones. This was the first of three generations of Z phones by Motorola/Lenovo which they committed to the system of Moto Mods.

Reflection
The Moto Z has, to some degree, been on the back-burner for a lot of this time, especially after the release of the Moto Z2 Play which seemed to be a better all-round Moto Z model. On reflection, I'm not so sure about that, though it certainly does have a couple of key advantages like a bigger battery and 3.5mm audio-out socket. But also a downside or two, like the lower resolution screen and lower chipset.

Still Flying
In the company of devices like the Samsung Galaxy S7, HTC 10, LG V20 and G5, the Moto Z had a cutting edge Snapdragon 820 with 4GB RAM which enabled the device to fly. It still does. It was also the first modern smartphone widely released to market with no 3.5mm audio-out socket and USB-C instead (regardless of claims elsewhere) which I really haven't found to be a limitation, but do accept that opinion remains divided. The 4GB RAM proves how forward thinking Moto were with this. We're still seeing Android phones without AndroidOne or Go coming with 3GB, and in some cases 2!

Thin and Light
It has a super bright 5.5" AMOLED 1440p 16:9 screen protected with Gorilla Glass 4 which still only gets used here indoors set to 10% and remains more than adequate. Colours are punchy, blacks are deep. The vibrant setting makes that even more so. It's obviously the same size as all the Z-Series phones so that the Mods fit, but it is super-thin at 5.2mm which, at the time, was a big WOW for many and remains the thinnest/lightest of any Z-Series handset. I maintain that modern 2:1 screens are a gimmick, as are Notches and bezel-free design with nowhere left to put your fingers.

Pragmatic
The Z was made of glass and aluminium, wafer-thin and classy in the hand, buttons metalic, solid and firm to the press. USB-C was pretty new at the time, too. This really was a very forward-looking device. There was apparently a 64GB version out there somewhere, but I never saw one in the UK. This one is 32GB which irks in 2018, but pragmatically and laying aside any paranoia, armed with a big microSD Card for everything that could go onto it, I really didn't have a problem.

Dreaming
It was also one of the first devices which supported Daydream and Google's vision for VR Headsets. The higher resolution screen ensured that the experience was as good as it could be and although I no longer have a headset I did try that out at the time. It wasn't great - and I think that it still isn't to be honest - but other firms are making headway with it, like Samsung. Point is though, that few handsets are ahead with this much further and Moto had this out there two years ago alongside Nexus.

Mellow
Hard to think that less than two years ago a device was sold with Android 6 on it! How expectations change! Nougat 7 came along almost exactly a year ago, in July 2017 and we've had to wait for a full further 12 months for Oreo to drop, unless, it seems, we lived in Brazil where Lenovorola seem to execute testing and push updates out first. That promise of updates seems like an awful long time ago now and whilst others leap-frogged Moto to updating various devices to Oreo, they just didn't really seemed bothered and were determined to take their own sweet time! To be fair, the others didn't have to ensure capability with a range of Mods, but I'll come to that.

TurboPower
The battery, on the face of it, was pitched at 2600mAh in order to pay thinness off against power, with the trick up their sleeve of course, of more juice via Mods (which they could flog!). The battery size always made me uncomfortable but to be honest, I can't remember a day when I didn't have a Mod battery snapped on anyway. It felt like the 'thin' thing was for posing. For fashion. For pushing boundaries. Yes, if you limit your use of it through the day you'll get to evening no problem - and many people no doubt did - but with even the 2220mAh Mod in place, which really doesn't add much thickness, you're suddenly well ahead of the trailing pack with nearly 5000mAh in your pocket. There was a TurboPower plug and cable in the box which gives 8 hours of power in 15 minutes of charging.

Rounded
The Moto speaker arrangement here is one! Firing sound out of the earpiece also used for calls. Over the years, since the forward-firing stereo speakers of some Moto devices (X, G) were taken away, they have reverted to this earpiece thing and actually, I think it works pretty well. Up against other devices with a single (often bottom-firing) speaker it frequently sounds better. It sounds rounded and good quality, if not the loudest. But I'd much rather have that quality than to compromise with a tinny payoff and volume. But then we have the Mods - what a payoff that is! Armed with a JBL stereo speaker, you're suddenly party-ready.

DAC
Going back to the headphone output via USB-C for a moment, Motorola had included, built into the handset itself, 24bit DAC which means that high quality audio output can be achieved through the supplied earphones, USB-C enabled headphones or via the supplied dongle out to 3.5mm. The sound through my headphones is fabulous! Again, ahead of the pack and times as this feature becomes more common.

Squircle
The fingerprint scanner is on the front, down at the bottom under the screen (where there's ample space to put your fingers and thumbs!) and it's a near-squircle! By today's standards it's small - even Moto themselves re-thought this for all models going forward and introduced the 'pill' shaped bigger scanner (which also doubled as a swipe-navigation control freeing up screen space). The small square scanner is perfectly good and works really well still. When compared with some of the side-mounted (particularly Sony) scanners, it's not that much smaller. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it works perfectly well. The registration is lightning fast as is execution every time. Of course, the near-unique Moto trick here also is that a single-press on that scanner also turns off the screen. Fiendish. I still don't know why this wasn't adopted (nor the Moto Approach for quick wave-over Glance information).

Snap
The main camera is a 13MP f1.8 unit with laser AF and OIS, so no slouch, and a 5MP f2.2 front-shooter. 4K video recording is available, again, with OIS integrated. The camera is simple by today's standards. No fancy bokeh modes or secondary zoom/wide lens. But it's perfectly good for people to take perfectly good photos. The lens is good and fast and it does much better than many in low light. Who needs fancy modes anyway! An image is collected via a hole which stays open for a length of time!

Modification
Overarching all the aforementioned, is the ongoing access the device has to the Moto Mod system. A system that still seems to be expanding. Not at a hugely fast rate, but steady. There have been some Mods which were talked about but never seen, some which were out from Day 1, many in between. What's nice about this is that the phone is 2 years old and they've stuck to the plan. They all fit and work, camera, projector, game-pad, batteries, printers, keyboard (still coming apparently!), stereo speakers, Alexa speakers, vehicle docks, wireless charging backs, style backs and probably some I missed! It's a great fun modular system and can hugely enhance a person's use of the phone. But I've covered that aplenty over the months.

Stand or Sit
The question is, does it stand up to being used as a daily phone after 2 years - and the answer is a resounding yes! There's no reason at all why this can't be used ongoingly. The Oreo update has brought some of those features which we're seeing in many devices these days with the latest version of Android. P-I-P, split-screen, emoji, app security scanning, notification and settings revamp, Auto-Fill, etc. But this is more about the user feeling not forgotten and up to date. Moto has now brought this along for their faithful followers and investors in the Mod system. We don't really need 18:9 screens and handsets that are too tall for their own good. We don't need fancy camera modes. We don't need Notches. We don't need zero bezel. I'm pleased to still have the Moto Z in stock and will continue to enjoy using the ground-breaking phone.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Electric Light Orchestra - Time

It's Clearly Time for the Electric Light Orchestra! This a 180g Clear Vinyl re-release version of the LP.

Wiki
Time is a concept album by ELO from 1981 written about a man from the 1980s who is taken to the year 2095, where he is confronted by the dichotomy between technological advancement and a longing for past romance.

The album signalled a departure from the band's sound by emphasising electronics over its usual orchestra.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

David Bowie - Changes One

Here presented in Clear 180g LP 'guise.

It's an album that I can't remember not having!

It's a kind of compilation really, but seems to stand up in its own right.

Originally released in 1976 and featuring songs from the previous few albums including Space Oddity, Ziggy, Aladin, Dogs, Young Americans and Station.

One to revisit frequently :-)

Meat Loaf - Bat out of Hell

Seemed like a reasonable Wednesday afternoon indulgence!
My blood red 180g LP going for a spin on a hot day.

Such a wonderfully constructed album. Jim Steinman - much overlooked - pulling the strings.
Interesting to also give his album Bad for Good an outing, which allegedly was scheduled for Meat Loaf to sing but he had to bail out because of illness.

Anyway, this one remains a peach and one of my generations' super-albums.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Dire Straits - Love Over Gold

Dire Straits' music doesn't seem to date, somehow, like other stuff can. This is as enjoyable now as it was first time round! This is a 180g LP bought relatively recently on the cheap from AmazonUK. Private Investigations is addictive and along with Telegraph Road engulfing Side 1, there's almost no need to turn it over ;-)

Wiki
Love over Gold is the fourth studio album by the British rock band Dire Straits released on 20th September 1982. The album produced two singles, "Private Investigations", which reached number 2 on the UK Singles Chart, and "Industrial Disease", which reached number 9 on Billboard's Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in the United States. The fourteen-minute opus, "Telegraph Road" has gone on to become a favourite on FM radio worldwide. The album reached number 1 on album charts in Australia, Austria, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom, and number 19 in the United States. Love over Gold was later certified gold in the United States, platinum in France and Germany and double-platinum in Canada and the United Kingdom.

God Help The Girl

As modern Musicals go, this is a peach indeed. Very well written and executed songs, help together by the scrumptious Emily Browning! It's earthy in places, reflecting the story of ordinary people trying to make a mark in music. This double 180g LP is a real soundtrack with much of the dialogue surviving where infused with songs.

Wiki
God Help the Girl is a musical project by Stuart Murdoch, leader of the Scottish indie group Belle and Sebastian, featuring a group of female vocalists, including Catherine Ireton, with Belle and Sebastian as the accompanying band. The project has released a self-titled album, an EP and several singles. Central to the project is a musical film, featuring songs from the project's recorded releases. The film was released in 2014. The songs of the project God Help the Girl belong to the genre of indie pop and resemble the other output of Belle and Sebastian in tone – two songs (Funny Little Frog and Act of the Apostle) were taken directly from the earlier repertory of this group. However, contrary to the earlier work of Belle and Sebastian (a group dominated by male performers), female vocalists (who are not members of the group) play the main role in the project. The songs themselves also tell about the problems of young girls entering adult life.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Handy Face Fan

The Haptime Mini Fan is very much a face-fan. Hold it within 3 inches of your face and it does a fair cooling act on your mug! It's really cute and handbag-ready or tall pocket fit. I have a pair of cargo trousers which has a thin, long pocket on the side (I think designed for a workman's spanner or something) in which it fits perfectly. It's about 6 inches long, made of solid plastic and has a pull-off lid, about the size of two lipsticks. The blades are very soft, so you'd have to be really stupid to hurt yourself with it, and the central chamber pulls out revealing 2 x AA batteries. It actually comes supplied with a set. There's a simple on/off slider switch.

The main selling point of this though is the handy size and shape - like a pair of reading glasses in a tube - throw it in a bag/pocket and forget about it until needed. Apparently a fresh set of batteries are good for 8 hours use, but that's with the supplied. I'm guessing that with a set of new Duracell cells it would be longer. It's quite hard to test that as nobody's going to use one of these continuously for 8 hours+ and it can only really be judged over time.

The main complaint will be the power of the fan, I'm thinking. It isn't very strong and wouldn't be much use in serious heat but for the average UK day, it's just fine if held, as I say, nice and close to the face. For a few quid I think it's worth throwing in a bag. 

£7.99 at AmazonUK

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Nokia 6.1 (2018)

Also known as the Nokia 6.1, this update to the first Nokia 6 from last year seems very different in many ways and I wonder why they just didn’t call it something else. Maybe they’ve run out of numbers. Oh yes - they have! I guess they could use 4 if some superstitious buffoonery wasn’t rife. Anyway, my approach to this device started off being dominated by the urge to consider it ‘for the price’ but that changed as I meandered along Nokia Lane.


Choices The 2017 Nokia 6 had many things going for it, some things not. Springing to mind each way is the stereo speakers, Snapdragon 430 chipset and microUSB dependence. This £200’ish price-point is a busy place though and consumers have an increasingly ample choice of options, styles, capabilities and brands from which to choose. The Moto X4 springs to mind or Sony Xperia XA2, being two that I have reviewed myself and seem to fit. But there are various choices from HTC, Xiaomi, Motorola, Sony, Honor and others which stake a claim.


Smaller The first thing to note is that they’ve made the device physically smaller, but retained the 5.5” screen. This has (partly) been achieved by shaking off that Nokia 8/HTC capacitive ‘chin’ cluster of navigation controls and having taken the screen further out towards the edges left and right. The fingerprint scanner has been shuffled around to the back and under the AndroidOne banner, Vanilla as-Google-intended, on-screen controls at the foot.


Gorgeous
Physically, the 6.1 looks gorgeous. It feels substantial in the hand at 172g, not light and lily-livered! The anodised 6000-series aluminium body in blue with gold accents and glass frontage looks very classy. The 'boxy' style of square edges and (only just) rounded corners gives it great grip in the hand with (my) finger and thumb just meeting around it. The shade of blue has been really well chosen by the team. Unlike the Nokia 8 series devices it's a matt finish, but remains a little slippery to the touch if not as much as the 8's. Case needed, me thinks, but at this price-point there ain't one in the box!

Long Island
On the back, there's a single camera and flash, the island for which sits slightly proud, but not to a huge degree like, for example, the Nokia 7 Plus. The island seems disproportionately long for a single camera and flash, which pushes the fingerprint scanner down too low on the back for its own good really. Don't know if that's physics or an attempt at style, but it would be better if it was was where the LED flash is located. The fingerprint scanner works really well, if maybe not as blazingly fast as those belonging to flagships. The setup is pure-Android simple and NFC/Android Pay works a treat at Tesco! There's also a gesture control which allows for Notification Shade swipe-down on the fingerprint scanner. All very functional.

Pure Gold
The gold accents continue around the scanner, island, edges, volume and power button - all of which take in a subtle chamfered shiny metallic look. On the top there's a 3.5mm audio-out socket, on the left a SIM/microSD Card tray (the tray itself, like the Nokia 7 Plus being plastic), volume and power on the right with single loudspeaker and USB-C charging/data port on the bottom. This has QC3 over the 6 and can fill 50% of the 3000mAh battery in half an hour. You get a super-power-charger in the box. In my tests this week, the battery is making the most of the SD630 and returning a very good all-day-and-beyond performance. I'd rather have more, like the 7 Plus, but it ain't half bad for the size of the device. The front glass has a slightly smaller chin/forehead than the 6 but at least there's still somewhere to put your fingers/thumbs. Hurrah, I say! The 2.5D glass very slightly curves into the edges and around the device are the microphones supporting OZO enhanced sound capture in 4K video.

Pretty
I'm very impressed with the look and feel, as I have been with all these Android Nokia devices. It looks like it's worth more than it is and that attention to detail has been considered to make it a device the owner will be proud to be seen with and enjoy using. That's all very well, I hear you cry, but it's no good having a pretty phone if it's no good! And you'd be right. So we plough on into that very sphere.

AndroidOne
First things first, much like the Nokia 7 Plus and 8 Sirocco the 6.1 runs AndroidOne and on delivery updated itself to Oreo 8.1.0 and May 2018 Google Security. No sign of June yet, but I'm sure it'll come along. Or even skip to July. We're sold on AndroidOne here and can see no reason now for devices to be released with anything else. Bang up to date and feature-rich as Google intended. Next to Pixel.

Snappy
The Snapdragon 630, much like the aforementioned Moto X4 and Sony Xperia XA2, runs things along very smoothly. Yes, it's not as snappy-fast as a Snapdragon 800-series chipset, but then this device is £200, not £800! The very, very slight delay between some executions and actions are so minimal that to complain would place things squarely into test-bench geekery for no real reason but to tick boxes. Switching between running tasks is just fine and once inside apps, you'd never know it was a lesser component. The SD600-series equipped devices are getting more and more impressive before we even start to talk about battery-saving capacity. This unit has 32GB storage and 3GB RAM. There is allegedly a 64GB/4GB dual-SIM version out there somewhere, but I couldn't readily find one in the UK to buy. Maybe India. It'll come. I must admit, I personally would have paid an extra £50 for that. Beyond my paranoia, there's a MicroSD Card slot and if everything you do is utilising that, I guess it's OK to live with 32GB. I'd just rather not!

Goldilocks
The 5.5" screen is, like the Nokia 8/8 Sirocco, 16:9. Which is fine with me. (And we can avoid the stupid Notch issue into the bargain!) There's something about 16:9 that just feels right in the hand and for the eyes, hands and fingers. 18:9 is all the rage, we know, but we're far from that format dominating media consumption yet - and I maintain that the 'tall' thing sometimes just makes a device too big in the hand. Nokia 7 Plus being a case in point. My only real complaint about it. The screen is a 1080p IPS LCD covered with the best-compromise Gorilla Glass 3.

Sunshine
The screen is not quite as bright as the Nokia 8, which seems to be the champion of bright LCD screens at the moment, but it really isn't far off. LCD screens seem to be betting better, sharper and brighter. Some reviewers have said that the colour reproduction is muted on the screen, but I've tested that against other devices to hand and I can't see that it's much different using a colourful, saturated shot. Maybe the OLED screen of the Nokia 8 Sirocco and Moto Z2 Play makes the colours pop a little more, but it really isn't by much. Again, it's test-bench stuff, not real-world use. Outside in bright sunshine, the screen is certainly still usable (unlike the BlackBerry KEY2 which I reviewed last week) but certainly it's not great. At the end of the day, it's a challenge for any phone screen. We need an e-ink display switch for that usage!


Fancy That
One of the things we've come to expect these days is fancy camera options, at least 2 lenses which do some fancy things, 2x zoom or wide-angle this and that, Bokeh Mode here and Portrait there. Well, something's gotta' give at this price-point and that is this! One could take the standpoint of considering that all the aforementioned are gimmicks and for goodness' sake, concentrate on capturing photos, not playing with settings! Half the time, the so-called Bokeh Mode doesn't seem to work anyway and I have proved often the dubious benefit over close-focus with most phones! Anyway, yes, the photography department won't thrill the Pro's here! Look at this sample, manual. How much bleedin' Bokeh do you want?! Yes, I know, the Bokeh Mode is for head/shoulders etc. and not always close-up. Blah, blah. 
Having said all that, there are some toys in the camera, HDR+, Panorama, Pro Mode for fiddlers, Dual front-back P-I-P Mode etc. There's plenty of capability in this camera without resorting to more expensive setups. I guess you could argue that at a similar price-point you certainly can get more if that's your thing and compromise on some of the other Nokia benefits.

OZO
One of the things which was added since the Nokia 6 is 4K video recording, incorporating OZO audio capture. This functions just as it does in the other Nokia models with that feature in the range and armed with a pair of headphones, what Nokia has done with the sound is quite eye-opening (or at least drum-vibrating!) the first time you hear it in action. Having said that, it's a real niche use case and I have to admit that I've never used it on any of these devices beyond testing! Maybe I should get out more! So, the main camera is a 16MP f2 unit, Zeiss branded, and the Selfie snapper, 8MP f2. The exact same specs. as the Nokia 6 before it. The Selfie snapper seems decent and has a wide-enough angle to be useful down the pub!

Speakers' Corner
You'd think that going from the Nokia 6's stereo speakers to the 6.1's single bottom-firing one would be a downward step, if you're like me. However, I've always said that stereo is not really as important with little-screened devices in your pocket as overall execution of sound output - and Nokia have, indeed, made this device with the single speaker sound better than the old one with the twinset and Dolby Atmos! It's loud and richer than many. Sounds very much like the 7 Plus so maybe it's the same speaker. As I said before in my review of the Nokia 7 Plus, it's not going to get close to market-leaders but with Nokia making phones at around this price-point sound as good as this, the rest had better knuckle down! Perfectly good for all uses and almost for that fictitious BBQ! Bluetooth 5 is now onboard over 4.1 from the 6.

Sound Investment
There's a 3.5mm audio-out socket, as I mentioned, and once again, testing with my headphones it sounds simply stunning. Yeah, yeah, I'm no audiophile as I always say, and am reviewing from real-world use for normal people - and that group will be blown away by the quality through headphones even if, technically it doesn't come close to a 32bit DAC enabled device. There's a non-recording FM radio included, which works very well given a good signal, and a switch once running to push audio out to the speaker. You have to leave in the 'aerial' of course! You do get a set of ear-plugs in the box, which I found a use for plugging a leak in a water-pipe.

Weather Talking of water pipes, there's no weatherproofing of any kind with this device, so user beware. Keep out of the rain. Wouldn't be difficult in the UK at time of writing as we suffer a heatwave approaching the lunacy of 1976!

Verdict I've got to utter the words, after all. Yes, for the price, it's a fabulous piece of kit. So capable in many ways, so advanced in many ways, but with trimmed specs. still making the absolute most of what it has. There are other devices out there which would appear to challenge the 6.1 in terms of specs. and capability, but very few of them boast a version of Android so close to Google, fast regular software updates and a device built in such a way that the user will be pleased to hold and use it, feeling a class above the others, certainly punching above its weight. You can get it in Black/Copper and White/Iron but I think this Blue/Gold version is the nicest. £229 just now seems, much like the Nokia range, a bit of a bargain for what you get.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Magic in the Moonlight

I always approach Woody Allen films without Woody Allen acting in them with an air of caution, expecting them to be not really as enjoyable as if he were present in front of the camera. I guess I'll have to get used to it now, however, as he declares himself the wrong age to carry off the roles.

Be not disheartened though, as he usually provides us with a finely honed replacement to read his lines. 'Celebrity' offered us Kenneth Branagh, method-acted to clinical perfection, 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' gave us Josh Brolin and so on. Various actors have carried it off to different degrees of success but none so beautifully as Larry David in 'Whatever Works'. He was made for the neurotic, disillusioned, paranoid, sceptical Woody role!

Here, we're offered Colin Firth. Straight from the posh Brit act camp populated by the likes of Hugh Grant, Jude Law et al. I hadn't realised until now quite just how spookily 'John Cleese/Michael Palin' Firth is. They just have to be related! I do think that we have now moved away from the 'emulation' model now and into an area where these actors are encouraged to, well, maybe not be quite so 'Woody'!

So the usual complex Woody tale of love triangle, class struggle, life lessons and complicated human relationships ensues with the backdrop once again being centred in or around showbiz, theatre and performance. Here again (remember Scoop in 2006?), a magician is centre-stage in 1920's Berlin and this time is whisked off to the South of France via London to expose an alleged fraudster making her fortune from being a Medium to those with money. Our scientific hero, who believes in nothing that isn't in front of his nose and provable heads off with glee to uncover the scam.

The Medium is charmingly played by Emma Stone and provides the 'across the pond' angle that Woody always injects, placing Yanks with Brits together in front of the lens. And so the challenge begins, racing through the story with the usual sharp wit, one-liners and engaging dialogue. An enjoyable yarn, well executed, and although Firth still feels pretty much in the typecast posh Brit role again, his performance is enjoyable and one which is warmed to.

The set, 1920's European theatreland, restaurants and monied domestic settings, is beautifully atmospheric and the photography executed with the usual interesting use of broad panning (especially in France) with some lovely shallow focus long shots in crowds, the camerawork aiding the growing atmosphere.

You'll either love Allen's product delivery or hate it, I guess. Fortunately I'm in the former camp and enjoy every minute. I can't think of a Woody Allen film that I have not enjoyed and this adds to the very long list. At 80, he's been conjuring up a film a year for almost 50 years, which really is some feat. I will be keen to see the more recent releases, 'Irrational Man' and 'Cafe Society', to keep me up to date. But for now, 'Magic in the Moonlight' is highly recommended.

The Invisible Woman

Whoever we're with, we're alone.
Set in 1850's England, this is a largely true (from what I can gather) story of Charles Dickens, his writings, readings and performances on the circuit of the day, dovetailing with a view of his personal life, family and more significantly, relationship with a young mistress.

The film was also very much a snapshot of a time where more privileged people amused themselves with art and social engagements instead of having to work for a living. Where manners were more important than money, honest expression of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Where values and the result of fame had a direct consequence for those embracing it in levels of freedom, happiness and contentment.

But it's also a sad tale of the wife of Charles Dickens, played by Joanna Scanlan, having provided him with the vessel to attain a flock of children, then cast aside for a younger model. And she stole the show, for me. She was only in a few scenes but they were emotional, poignant and considered. She was very convincing and I think very good actor.

Ralph Fiennes, who also directed, didn't really stretch himself in this outing unlike Felicity Jones who, from what else I've seen of her in other films, certainly did. She grasped the role of the mistress and devoured it. The film's best moments were the emotional close-up scenes between the main players and they were executed beautifully, where silence and extended pause was not feared, but embraced for dramatic effect.

The film was beautifully shot. Close up scenes thoughtful and well composed, long shots often with focus thrown out. The settings are colourless and dour, which I guess is a reflection of the time. It's a bit of a slow-burner but certainly well worthy of a Sunday afternoon viewing.

Recommended.

Bridge of Spies

I watched this Coen brothers film, directed by Steven Spielberg, last night and really enjoyed it. The story, based on true events, surrounds an Insurance Solicitor in 1957 whisked in by the American authorities to negotiate the release, as part of an exchange deal, of an American serviceman captured in Russia in the Cold War with a Russian spy captured in America. Not content with hatching that deal, our hero tries his hand at cracking the deal into a two-for-one, to include an American student detained dubiously in East Berlin.

It all sounds a bit complicated but actually it's not. What is complex is the behind the scenes measures and counter-measures employed by the authorities to get the upper hand over the other. It's bleak and cold, a theme used throughout the European set to further, presumably, highlight the 'cold' part of the war (after all, the European scenes could have been shot in summer!) and glum and dour. Poverty stricken people, radical acts of violence against citizens around the Berlin Wall (it having just been erected) and the unpredictability at the whim of governments, countries and their officials paint a picture of a time and place you wouldn't want to be.

The 1950's sets were just perfect. Not a thing out of place and the style and ambience of the day was captured beautifully. It was slow at times (depicting much of the waiting game being played, I guess) but the amazing, as always, central performance of Tom Hanks carries the film. It really is quite amazing how he has this presence about him. It's hard to find a film in which he doesn't only excel, but also that is in any way not engaging. I watched Captain Phillips recently and the same thought prevailed. Anyone else doing this and the film would have missed that spark he brings.

Mark Rylance was spooky, eerie and cool as the Russian spy, good old Alan Alda as a commercial boss back in America, a long way from M*A*S*H but as always, engaging, and my friend Jesse Plemons from Fargo (Year Two) popped up as an American Serviceman. Great to see him in something else, too. But the show was stolen of course by Hanks.

The two hours plus watching such a wonderful film just flies. Thoroughly recommended viewing.

Dad's Army

The film, that is, not the phenomenally qualitative TV Series from the BBC. Guess you know what's coming now! Oh dear. What a shame that this was done and the TV Series wasn't left to RIP.

TV Series' being ported to the big screen rarely work. I'm sure you have a list in your head. But when (pretty much) none of the original cast are involved (and where they are, they're bit-parts) the tall order becomes skyscraper high. And I'm afraid this doesn't deliver, on almost every level.

Our Captain, played by Toby Jones, although presented as a buffoon, had none of Arthur Lowe's confidence, authority and leadership. He's a weak joke. That's not how our idiot hero was!

Jones, played by Tom Courtenay, is nothing like Clive Dunn, though they tried embarrassingly hard to give him one-liners to make him so, executed horribly. Ditto Fraser, played by Bill Paterson, who had none of the spunk and personality of the Scottish Undertaker made famous by John Laurie.

Pike as portrayed by Blake Harrison, was kind of passable, but Mavis was not cast well at all. Godfrey played by Michael Gambon had real promise, executed faithfully mostly, but he was sadly, largely, left in the background with not enough to do. Hodges was nothing like Bill Pertwee and was barely in the film.

The show was stolen though by Bill Nighy, playing Wilson. Of all the characters and actors, he got by far the closest to emulating the personality and quirks of John Le Mesurier's masterpiece. He played it just right and it would seem that the producers knew this as he was, I got the impression, given the most screen time. He did more than everyone else put together, to save the day. But even for Nighy, this was too much to ask.

They've tried to make the storyline into an intricate WWII plot involving wider agencies and authorities than they should have done. One of the strengths of the TV Series was that it was local, much of it in the town hall and bank, depicting everyday life of the platoon going about their daily business. This formula, they should have stuck with. It didn't need a lavish and, frankly, towards the end, ludicrous, plotline. Shame.

The biggest problem though, apart from all the aforementioned, is that it just isn't funny. I think I raised a mediocre smile twice.

A great shame. I was a huge fan of Dad's Army, but this, like many others before it going up-screen, is a disaster which should not have been done. The tall order should not have been taken from the table to the chef.

The Pianist

A harrowing WWII drama based on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish pianist who found himself, as a Jew, wrapped up in the invasion of Nazi Germany and depicts not only the terrible hardship that he and his family had to endure but also gives a glimpse into the terrible effect of the day on the whole of the Jewish community and survival in the Warsaw Ghetto. I guess Schindler’s List is noted as one of the most graphic portrayals of the plight of the downtrodden at the time and the terrible things that were done to the Jewish people, but this also allows us a similar insight into how it was on the ground in an often claustrophobic ambience.

Shot in 2002 by Roman Polanski (Oliver Twist, The Ninth Gate, Death and the Maiden, Bitter Moon, Rosemary's Baby) and Starring Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Houdini (TV), Midnight in Paris), Thomas Kretschmann (Stalingrad, The Saint, Valkyrie, Downfall, U-571), Frank Findlay and Maureen Lipman amongst many others, the film is acted amazingly well by the whole cast. Brody is said to have lost lots of weight in order to demonstrate the horrors of starvation appropriately. The sets are bleak and the prejudice and terrible behaviour of the invaders incredibly demonstrated.

It’s a story of survival and one man’s struggle to get through, to wait in hiding until liberation arrives, fighting for each breath to keep going, not a Boy’s Adventure WWII film which were made by the gallon in the 1960’s and really became Cowboys v Indians, baddies v goodies romps. This is a sad true story which uplifts the mood very little, but rather, gives us food for thought and appreciation that people actually did come out the other side of the terror of the day.

The book by Szpilman on which the film is based is available to purchase at https://goo.gl/bkBJeU

Scoop

Yes, I know. It's another Woody Allen crime comedy. But they're just such fun!

And in this one, Allen expertly casts Scarlett Johansson (for a second time, following Match Point) in the overenthusiastic role of a wide-eyed girl chasing an ideal, previously filled by Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery, Love and Death and others, as they combine perfectly in a near-formulaic manner.

The two leads play off each other beautifully and as Allen feeds her with quips and one liners aplenty she's given the scope to throw back the banter, resulting in a comedy duo act that feels well polished and is a delight to watch.

The plot is complicated, as usual, but fluffy, and involves Allen playing around with life, love, crime, death, the afterlife and distaste. Allen plays a magician playing a London theatre and Johansson a student journalist visiting, a recently deceased journalist appearing from the grave with a Scoop of a story regarding murder and a privileged British family which needs infiltrating. All the strings are pulled together in a did-he-didn't-he chase orchestrated within a wrapper of fun and games, but more importantly, the super chemistry between the leads.

It's a gorgeous film which delights. By this stage Allen is getting on a bit and he sometimes appears to stumble, but it's smartly wrapped into the act of the ageing magician. And seeing him driving a Smart Car on the wrong side of the road is a gem!

Highly recommended.

Eye in the Sky

A film which focuses on people, people's values and human beings placed in situations challenging expected behaviour and emotional response. The dilemma for the execution team is similar to that faced by the military staff entrusted to do as they're told and trained to do at the start of the film War Games, though in that case, presented with an air of 'boy's adventure'. Not here.

This is a much more gritty drama which tells the tale of the actions of a drone flying over Africa being controlled by a USA remote pilot, very well played by Breaking Bad's Jessie, Aaron Paul, the top military brass in London represented by the late Alan Rickman and the Colonel on the ground devotedly committed to the mission's goal, played by Helen Mirren.

It explores how the chain of command and decision making happens between governments, ministers, military personnel and politicians when human life is at stake for different cultures seeking different ideals whilst avoiding post-incident blame through investigation and enquiry. It highlights the difficulties faced by everyone in deciding how to choose between the worse of two undesirable outcomes and does so excellently with edge-of-the-seat tension and suspense.

It's beautifully directed by Gavin Hood with excellent photography and a haunting score throughout in what, for much of the time, are claustrophobic scenes.

Now, I'm not in any way qualified to know if any of it's accurate or based on what really does, can or would happen, nor stand in judgement about the issues involved about terrorism and how to right the world's wrongs, but it certainly made for a tight-knit engaging thriller with excellent performances. The time spent watching it just flies - and I'm finding that more and more difficult to say with films these days.

Recommended, certainly.

Alfred Hitchcock with James Stewart

Watched a couple of Hitchcock films this week. Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much. The thing that seems to stand out is the performance and acting of James Stewart. I also recently watched It's a Wonderful Life too. It's been a bit of a post-war film-binge!

Very often, I start to watch films made in this era and find it difficult to stick with it, as the acting is very 'wooden', sets obvious studio and 'special' effects laughable! I guess that's a sign of the technology of the time. But James Stewart seems to glow in all respects while others (and other things around him) remain similar. Those around him remain 'wooden' in their acting, generally, where he shines and clearly demonstrates that he's a natural and ahead of his time in portraying the plight of his characters. It feels a bit like watching Tom Hanks now, who similarly shines whilst others around him, in many cases, fall away, unconvincing. I'm very impressed, 60 years on.

I guess, there's nothing much anyone could have done about the sets and 'special' effects. In various scenes in these films, there's an outside scene by a beach, or in a car, where I wonder why, instead of making it look so clearly fake, they didn't just shoot the scene outside. Or employ a stuntman to execute a fall instead of making it look like a badly drawn cartoon. But then I'm no film engineer, and maybe limitations on recording equipment didn't allow it. I did wonder if any of these actors actually ever left a studio!

But laying that aside, these films are suspense-filled and gripping to watch, which, I guess, through all the aforementioned, is down to good solid story-lines and top notch directing. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock's reputation doesn't need any embellishment from the likes of me, but I do go back to these films often, which must say something. The Birds, Dial M for Murder, Psycho, Rebecca, Strangers on a Train. They all grip the imagination, often with twists and turns that even, all this time later, audiences don't see coming and which remain compelling viewing.

But the point of the post really was to highlight James Stewart who, for his era, in the words of Monty Python, shines out like a shaft of gold when all around is darkness!

Suffragette

I wasn't really sure that I'd like this at the outset and that I'd get a bit bored with the subject matter, but actually, it's a very well thought out piece of cinema, beautifully shot, atmospheric, wonderfully acted and kept my interest throughout.

This kind of film was made for Helena Bonham-Carter of course and she rules the roost really. Anne-Marie Duff, who I've only really ever seen in Shameless (but had forgotten that she was also in The Magdalene Sisters), also provided a great supporting role and the lead, played by Carey Mulligan, who previously has appeared mainly in quality British TV drama, was remarkable. All the players were convincing and portrayed the harrowing plight of these people and their struggle against the establishment back in the day as they fought to get women the vote and move towards equality in law with men.

I learned much from watching the film, too. It gave context to the snippets of information we think we know about the events of the era and, assuming it was true to life, gave a stark portrayal of social values and the behaviour of those with power at the time - and it's really not that long ago. How far we have come.

Thoroughly recommended viewing. Available on NowTV as I write.

Transcendence

Finding it quite difficult to drum up a review of this. Can't decide if it's good, bad, silly, unrealistic, or if I liked it or not. It's a slice of the future, allegedly, where a brilliant brain (consciousness) is harvested from the body of a dying genius and allowed to continue his good work in AI development from within a digital existence. It shows us how amazing and fast the resulting process of development becomes, demonstrating, for example, how human disability can be easily and quickly fixed, but ultimately how the outcome could be destructive to humanity.

Like other reviewers I've read, I'd agree that there are plot gaps and inconsistencies, little engagement for the viewer in storyline, a distinctive lack of character development and desire for investment in the process.

However, I don't think that's what this is about. It feels much like an Independent version of a Hollywood funded film with main stream actors. The actors, all playing IT/AI/Scientist nerds, do very well, are very convincing and taken in isolation, can be very much enjoyed. Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman apply their usual command in front of the lens and Rebecca Hall is the most convincing and engaging of the players.

But the star of the film is the potential technology that is showcased as a possible slice of what could be coming our way as technology develops and machine takes over man. Think of it as a cross between Channel 4's excellent Humans and Frankenstein with a dose of ex_machina thrown in!

An enjoyable romp but a snapshot of the near future or an overenthusiastic author's dream? You can decide!

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Two films for the price of one?! Confused? Yes, a remake of his own film! The 1934 version of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller was remade by himself in 1956. I watched both this week and it's fair to say that the later version is much more polished and has been made into a slightly different story but also benefits from the Hitchcock and James Stewart collaboration seen in other of his films of the era.

It's easy to scoff at the quality of the first film, but you have to remember that it was made on a low budget in 1934 when special effects were near nonexistent, acting very wooden and sound recording littered with blemish. It's an enjoyable outing, nonetheless, and as it's only an hour long, whips the viewer straight into the meat of story, spends little time scene-setting or character building and focuses very much on getting it in the can. It's in black and white of course and it's sometimes hard to keep track of who's who, with all the men dressed in black!

The newer version has been elongated, plot expanded and made more interesting, climaxes with a much more plausible ending (over the siege/shootout of the former) and is initially based in Africa rather than Switzerland. In fact, the first half hour, in some senses, feels a little dragged out before the story takes off, it could be argued.

The cute little girl of the first is replaced by a pretentious boy in the second and leading lady cast as Doris Day. I'm not sure about that. I keep seeing her as the self-assured, overconfident Calamity Jane rather than Hitchcock's usual prescious underplayed dependent and cutesy leading lady. So a switch. But Stewart, as usual, steals the show with a central performance which pulls the film together which, along with the award winning direction, makes for a good, tight and gripping thriller.

Both are worth a viewing so that you can draw comparison and at the time of this review, you can watch the whole of the first one on YouTube. Otherwise, link below for details. Both recommended, latter more polished.

Nokia 8 Sirocco (Revisited)

As I woke today on 14th November and was greeted with my Nokia 8 Sirocco's November 2018 Google Security Update, I thought it might be...